As we travel around Thailand, we can’t help but see references to Buddhism everywhere; temples, shrines, stupas and then the thousands of Buddha images themselves. Not surprisingly, many of us automatically first think of Thailand when asked to name a Buddhist country. Yet, no matter how long we spend here – or even live here – we may be none the wiser as to what Buddhism is really about. To understand it all requires us to study it in some form or other; we cannot hope to comprehend it simply by living in the proximity of a temple or by being immersed in Buddhist culture. Many people come to Thailand to stay in temples in order to get to grips with Buddhism; they learn to meditate and are taught the precepts for a way of life that’s so different to that in the West.
It’s a lofty goal as Buddhism aims to put an end to ‘Dukkha’ or, as it’s often loosely translated, suffering. People may shrug at this limited, old-fashioned word. But Dukkha means a lot more. In fact it covers the entire spectrum of pain and unhappiness. Dukkha is variously anxiety, distress, frustration, unease, dissatisfaction, worry, sadness, and so on.
Many translators now use the term ‘unsatisfactoriness’ as a translation. Buddhists divide Dukkha into three extremely broad categories: the sufferings of life, such as birth, aging, sickness and death; the frustration of not getting what we want, due to the changing nature of all things, and finally that basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of life, that sense that things never measure up to how we would like them to be. The aim of Buddhism is to release us from all of that, and the fact that millions of Thais practise Buddhism on a daily basis tells us that this is the nation’s way of dealing with adversity and achieving happiness.
For Thai Buddhists, true happiness lies within, not outside. Materialism doesn’t bring happiness; the amassing of wealth and the enjoyment of material assets cannot bring us satisfaction. That said, it’s not wrong to be rich and be surrounded with ‘the good things of life’ and to enjoy them, but if materialism is our goal, then we should know that all the treasures we collect are going to prove a hollow experience. In any case, we must remember that everything comes to an end – this is the
famed law of impermanence. And however much we may rail against that, a walk in the forest shows us that that is just how life is: every bit of the forest is alive, from the tiniest leaf to the largest animal, yet all of it, and all the beings that live there, all the plants and leaves and trees will one day die. To Western ears that may sound a gloomy, miserable viewpoint, but this is one of the main points of Buddhism and as a religion it takes on board impermanence and suffering and makes of
them something else entirely.
Buddhism is embedded in Thai culture to such an extent that the main rite of passage for men is to become monks at some stage during their lives. Usually this is when they’re quite young, and they will enter the monkhood for a short time. Some stay on. Traditionally, ordination in the Sangha (the monkhood) can be done at short notice, but is not considered a lifetime commitment. This is still largely practised in the countryside areas, less so in the bigger cities. The Bhikkhuni, or female
order of monks, is a subject of much discussion; there are many female monks, but far fewer than males, due to current customs and regulations. Many Thais see this as a glaring inequality.
The traditions of Buddhism as practiced in Thailand go back to early recorded history. King Ramkhamhaeng the Great left an inscription in 1292 mentioning a monk who had studied the Pali Buddhist Canon from beginning to end and who lived at a forest temple. This monk, noted the King, was the supreme patriarch of the monkhood. Gautama Buddha ordered that monks should maintain contact with their local community. You’ll see Thai monks participating in various ceremonies, from blessing a new business to conducting a funeral. And every morning, bare foot monks make their rounds collecting food for
Temples are sacred ground, and it’s considered deeply unethical to mistreat the temple property or monks in any way at all. This is taken very seriously, though it may come as a bit of a surprise for many visitors who, along with thousands of Thais, will go to a temple fair to enjoy good times and have some fun. Or even a lot of fun.
The temple used to be the centre of community life at one time, and even if these days, that’s not so true, it’s still a place to gather for the local people living in the area. On Samui you’ll see a temple fair somewhere, every month. It’s a time to socialize, eat together, listen to singing, play games and do a little shopping at the stalls that are present at every fair.
Buddhism certainly has its playful side.
Buddhism in Thailand is in some ways tied in with secular politics, with some monks vociferously taking part in the political life of the country. And there are even controversial monks, as any brief perusal of the Thai media will show. And in today’s world of instant communication, monks who’ve been caught doing wrong, are instantly identified and then appear on social media, there to be exposed for all their wrongdoings. Generally, monks are seen as a class apart, and are deeply respected
by most Thais. People are afraid to do anything that might be considered wrong to a monk as they fear bad karma coming to them. In return, monks are expected to conduct themselves in exemplary fashion. They’re trusted to do so by the civic authorities. The monkhood is governed by its own sets of laws, administered by the Sangha Council of Thailand, a strict body that deals with any criminal cases in its own fashion, usually without the intervention of the police.
Thai Buddhism, however, is not simply total devotion to the Buddhist scriptures as seen in the Pali canon. Many people also have practices that have woven themselves into the cultural landscape of Buddhism here. It’s possible to see many examples of this; magical practices, animistic belief, and Hindu influences are all to be found in Thai Buddhist culture.
This explains the widespread presence of spirit houses, for example, protective amulets and the trees that are adorned with coloured cloths because of the spirits who live there.
The main beliefs, however, are quite clear and were formulated by the Gautama Buddha. He summarized his doctrine into the Four Noble Truths, which are:
1. Dukkha is a universal part of life.
2. The cause of this Dukkha is desire or craving. (Desire doesn’t mean enjoying a pleasurable or happy experience. The acceptance of such an experience is not a problem; instead the danger arises from craving or attachment to it.
3. A way forward exists to put an end to all this suffering and we are able to realize it.
4. This end to suffering comes about if we follow the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path consists of
1. Right Understanding: developing the mind and learning so as to understand problems of suffering and how to resolve them.
2. Right Thought: to have thoughts that are free from lust, bad intent and cruelty.
3. Right Speech: to abstain from angry language, telling lies and any kind of vain talk.
4. Right Action: to abstain from killing, stealing, intoxicating drink and sexual misconduct. (For monks complete celibacy is expected; laymen are advised to abstain from adultery or other inappropriate sexual behaviour.)
5. Right Livelihood: the avoidance of any occupation or business which leads to harm or detriment of ourselves or others.
6. Right Effort: training oneself to exert one’s will and self discipline to develop beneficial mental states of mind and
overcome negative, unwholesome states.
7. Right Mindfulness: includes different meditation practices and psychological techniques, according to what the individual needs.
8. Right Concentration: training the mind to remain focused on a single object and not wandering from thought to thought.
As we travel round Thailand, whether we’re in a village or in downtown Bangkok, we are surrounded by people who are
deeply influenced by Buddhist belief. Some of us may wonder if Buddhism might not be the way forward; many in the west start practicing it, never to stop. If we’re in Thailand it’s quite easy to find a monastery or temple where we can learn more, and the same goes for Samui (check out Dipabhavan, for example, if interested).
To be in Thailand is to experience a culture that owes much to Buddhism. When we first start seeing monks in orange robes, temples with their gold leaf and the spires of stupas, we may find it all deeply exotic; we may think of ourselves as being on a strange journey in a strange land. But this is only on the surface. Buddhism is always down to earth and it addresses all the deep, universal questions that we go through life asking ourselves.